How does the dissemination of misinformation confuse history? Here is one example: a few decades ago a local newspaper reporter was visiting Baltimore, Maryland. While there, he boarded the U.S. Sloop-of-War Constellation. The historic ship serves as a floating museum. During the reporter’s tour, a docent informed him that the Constellation was the first ship to arrive at Indian Key after the Aug. 7, 1840 attack during the Seminole War.
The reporter walked away from his experience believing what he was told. When he returned home to Key Largo, he wrote a story about it for the paper. About a year ago, the reporter reached out to the Keys History & Discovery Center to relay the story of the Constellation’s service in the Keys, adding that he had also read the account in a book he had seen in the Islamorada library, or so he thought. Having never heard this story, there were questions that needed some investigating. First, based on the facts that the ship is 181 feet in length at the waterline and has a draft of 21 feet, it seems difficult to imagine a ship of that size approaching Indian Key. Also, the U.S. Sloop-of-War Constellation was not commissioned until July 28, 1855.
As is frequently the case when it comes to the manner in which misinformation becomes incorporated into the historic record, there is a kernel of truth in the story. There was another ship christened with the same name, the U.S. Frigate Constellation, commissioned on Sept. 7, 1797. This first version of the ship did serve in the area. In 1835, it was sent to the Gulf of Mexico to offer support during the Seminole War. However, this Constellation was nowhere near Indian Key during the 1840 event. In 1838 and 1839, the ship was undergoing repairs. During the early 1840s, the Constellation was circumnavigating the globe. By 1845 the ship had returned to Norfolk, Va., and was later decommissioned. Broken up in 1853, some of the timbers of the frigate Constellation were used in the construction of the Sloop-of-War Constellation. In any case, no version of the Constellation was at Indian Key after the 1840 attack, but today there are any number of people who still think it was. And that is just one way misinformation becomes stitched into the historic fabric.